Zombies and politicians, Oh My! Mira Grant’s Feed

Have you ever forced yourself to finish a terrible book just to confirm to yourself that you are right: It really is terrible?

I picked up Feed by Mira Grant after it scored a Hugo nomination and a lot of good buzz from the science fiction press. It featured an intriguing premise: A political thriller set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of a blogger/journalist. I love politics, I’m a journalist, and I’ve recently renewed my interest in zombie literature after becoming a fan of The Walking Dead comic. So, I thought I’d enjoy Feed.

Unfortunately the experience of reading this book is like a clinic on how NOT to write a book. I suffered through all 571 pages primarily to emphasize to myself what I should avoid in my own writing.

Let’s start with the exposition. The information dump is the most treacherous trap in genre fiction writing. When you are building a world and placing your characters in it, you have to explain how that world works, whether it be some alien world, a sword and sorcery kingdom or a zombie-infested United States. The best authors do this efficiently and with subtlety. Mira Grant does not.

Her narrator dumps information relentlessly. She dumps info on everything. The nature of the zombie virus, the complicated and absurdly unbelievable mechanics of the blogging industry in her future, the process of earning a license to go out in the wilds of a zombie-infested world, the construction of zombie-proof buildings and vehicles, the laws about how to handle people who have been infected.

It seems like Mira Grant is more interested in information dumps than she is in telling a story, because when she does set out to tell the story between information dumps, almost nothing happens. There’s a scene late in the book where the narrator is setting up a video conference session with dozens of fellow bloggers to discuss a huge conspiracy. She devotes pages and pages to the details involved in setting up the conference call and securing it and getting everyone into the call. Then the video session commences and NOTHING HAPPENS. Seriously, you’re expecting her to tell her colleagues something interesting. She doesn’t. She fires everyone, then rehires them in some sort of contractual procedural madness that doesn’t matter to the plot. Then she pulls a couple people aside for some one-on-one discussions that, again, involve nothing interesting. I was expecting some plot advancement. In the end, all there was were empty dialog and information dumps. End of chapter.

What’s a good way to get a story going if you’re struggling with your plot and need to get out of information dump mode? How about some dialog? Mira Grant doesn’t know how to write dialog. Her main characters are bloggers in their early, early 20s (youth is fetishized intensely in this book). The main characters, narrator Georgia Mason,  her brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy are all kids. And they are all extremely unlikable. Mira Grant believes that snarky repartee makes for good dialog and character development. She is dead wrong. Get it? Dead.

Here are Georgia and Shaun and colleague Rick investigating the cause of a zombie horse outbreak at a ranch:

If anything odd happened here, we might find signs of it around their stalls,” [I said].

Under the six hundred gallons of gore,” Rick muttered.

Hope you brought a shovel!” Shaun called, sounding ungodly cheerful.

Rick stared at him. “Your brother is an alien.”

“Yeah, but he’s a cute one,” I said. “Start checking the stalls.”

And here are Georgia, Shaun and Rick reflecting on a tense encounter with soldiers pointing big guns at them.

“That really upset you, didn’t it?” [Shaun asked.]

“What, you mean the part where the nice guys with the big guns demonstrated over a live feed that I can be incapacitated by taking my glasses away? That didn’t bother me one bit.” I shoved Shaun’s feet off my lap. “Sit up. This isn’t a cruise.”

“Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn’t had her beauty sleep,” said Shaun, pushing himself upright. Twisting around to face Rick, he said, “So, Ricky-boy, you seen your ratings? Because I have some ideas to spice things up. Let’s start with nudity.”

Don’t you just want to spend 571 pages with these people? Cocky, pseudo-journalists who don’t report the news. All they do is self-aggrandize and editorialize and toss impersonal snark back and forth. The reader knows this because every chapter is book-ended with excerpts from their blogs. Ugh.

Next problem? Repetition! In a world where fears of viral zombification are constant, everyone is constantly getting their blood tested to prove that they’re not about to go undead. Entering a restaurant? Blood test. Checking into a hotel? Blood test. Entering your own house? Blood test. Unlocking the door to your car? Blood test? Entering a highly secure area? Blood test, blood test, blood test. That’s right, multiple blood test check points, where the character gets their fingers pricked by a needle and light flashes back and forth from red and green before settling on a color (Hint, red is bad. It means a bullet to the brain).

After the first few chapters, the reader is clear. Blood tests are everywhere. After 400 pages, I don’t need the author to devote a page or two in every chapter to the details of every blood test. I don’t need the narrator describing the different brands of blood test kits. Let’s give it a rest. Get to the story. Oh, that’s right, there is NO story.

The repetition doesn’t start and end there, either. Don’t get me started about narrator Georgia’s medical condition, related to the zombie virus, which has rendered her pupils permanently dilated and forced her to wear sunglasses everywhere. Rather than have nightmares about hungry zombies, I’m going to have nightmares about the countless pages devoted to Georgia’s light-induced headaches, moments where she gropes around for her sunglasses in the morning, and misunderstandings at security checkpoints where dudes with guns demand that she remove her sunglasses. Please, make it stop!

I could go on with the reasons why this book falls on its face… like its horrible inconsistencies. For instances, Georgia’s eye condition has disabled her tear ducts, which means she can’t cry with tears. She even remarks late in the book about how she wishes she could cry, but the virus that damaged her eyes have robbed her of that. How poignant… and yet, in the middle of the book she does cry. With real, live tears and everything. Anyway, moving on. Let’s get to the heart of why this book is a whole lot of suck.

There is no payoff. You suffer through all this mediocrity expecting to see some sort of revelation that is mildly interesting, but there isn’t one.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

This book is about a muddled, half-developed conspiracy. Georgia and Shaun and their follow bloggers are part of the press corps traveling with a front-running candidate for the GOP nomination for president, Senator Ryman. He’s an aw-shucks, down-to-earth, country boy with “straight white teeth,” who is about as one-dimensional as a line on a sheet of paper. His eventual running mate is Governor Tate of Texas. This guy might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead.

The book turns into a quest to find out why someone is trying to assassinate Ryman and/or derail his campaign by murdering the people around him — murder them with ZOMBIES!. Of course the bad guy is Tate, the asshole running mate who spouts off constantly about propriety and morality and God all the time… all while being really really really mean to Georgia and her fellow dirty bloggers. Any reader who is spoiled by the previous sentence should really get a blood test for the zombie virus, because you are BRAIN DEAD.

Anyway, in this book it’s up to Shaun and Georgia to discover he’s the bad guy and prove it. Why the CDC, the Army, the Secret Service and just about anyone with half a brain missed the obvious clues is beyond me. At one point a clue literally gets stuck in the bottom of Shaun’s shoe. No joke!

Even worse, when the bad guy (Tate) is confronted and revealed, his only explanation for why he was trying to kill Ryman and do assorted other bad things was to say that someone had to restore the “moral fiber” of America. Oh, please. Don’t we hear enough of this stupidity on MSNBC and Fox News?

Oh, and did I mention that this is the first book in a sequel about bloggers in zombie apocalypse? The next one is called Deadline, in which our surviving heroes seek out the conspirators who helped Tate do all his dastardly deeds.

This book is awful. After I read it, I tried to find some reviews. I’d only heard glowing endorsements, so I needed to dig deeper. I’ve been shocked by the majority of reviews that rave about it (mostly blogs and genre sites since no mainstream reviewing bodies have bothered to touch it). User reviewers are mostly positive, too. Probably 80% of Amazon reviewers gave it four or five stars. This is where you need to look hard at the bad reviews. The one- and two-star reviews. Read them closely and see if the complaints made by disgruntled readers (like me) are reasonable.

Don’t believe the hype on this one. Feed is terrible. I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone, even a diehard zombie fiction fanboy. Just don’t do it to yourself.